Scream Factory is quickly turning into the go-to imprint for fans of John Carpenter. With their releases of They Live, Prince of Darkness, The Fog, and both Halloweens II and III (both written and produced by he and Debra Hill), the label has delivered definitive editions of the bulk of the director’s finest work. With the release of Assault on Precinct 13, Scream Factory gives us America’s master of horror at his rawest as he explores a very real kind of horror in this, his sophomore feature; a film that, in my opinion, ranks among the finest thrillers of the 1970s.
Assault on Precinct 13 opens with a massive police raid on a meeting between Los Angeles gang members who’ve recently stolen a large shipment of automatic weapons. The raid results in the deaths of several of the thugs, causing members of four once-rival gangs form a pact to wreak havoc on the city, arming themselves with their ill-gotten weapons, and taking to the streets.
We are then introduced to recently promoted Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is assigned a light detail at a closing precinct on the fringes of Los Angeles. His job; to babysit the building, redirect traffic, and basically spend his first night as a Lieutenant twiddling his thumbs with a skeleton crew consisting of one officer, dispatcher Julie (Nancy Loomis), and records clerk Leigh (Laurie Zimmer).
Meanwhile, an obviously aggravated man named Lawson (Martin West) and his daughter, Kathy (Kim Richards), are lost en route to a relative’s house in a rough east L.A. neighborhood. Lawson stops at a payphone to call for directions while Kathy heads over to a nearby ice cream truck. Kathy makes her purchase just as a suspicious car slowly rolls by, getting the ice cream truck driver’s attention. Kathy heads back to her father but, when she realizes the ice cream truck driver gave her the wrong flavor, she returns to find the driver’s been shot, and she, too, is gunned down. When her father finds her body, he’s overcome by grief and rage, and pursues the gang members, eventually tracking them down, and killing the man who shot his daughter.
As night falls at Precinct 13, a prison bus transporting prisoners – including the notorious killer, Napoleon Wilson (the late Darwin Joston) - makes a pit stop at the abandoned Precinct 13 when one of the inmates falls violently ill. Tensions mount within the precinct as Bishop tries to maintain order over the temporary prisoners and their charges, when, suddenly, an exhausted Lawson comes crashing through their door seeking refuge. While Leigh tries to get the unresponsive Lawson to tell them what happened to him, the phone and electricity are cut off, and, following a hail of automatic gunfire hushed by silencers, Bishop realizes that his station is under siege by a faceless enemy. To survive, cops and crooks have to join forces and fend off the assault on Precinct 13.
Assault on Precinct 13's plot will be familiar to western fans Carpenter based the film on Howard Hawk’s classic Rio Bravo. What makes this film qualify as a horror film rather than a simple police drama is the way Carpenter handles the siege. We never get more than a shadowy glance at the gang members outside the precinct's doors. When the gang members drop the flag on the front steps to state that they will achieve their goal at any cost and without regard for their own lives, they become the monster. And perhaps, most terrifying of all is the fact that a police station, the first place one would turn to for safety, is the target of the attack, right in the middle of a city of millions, and yet as isolated as a cabin in the woods. Carpenter's knack for tight pacing, haunting music (of course, scored by him), and solid visual storytelling shines here and hints at the great things yet to come.
Scream Factory presents Assault on Precinct 13 as part of their collector’s edition series. The film is presented in a 2.35:1 1080p transfer that I’m fairly certain is a tweaked version of Image’s 2009 Blu-ray release (and, until I hear otherwise, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!). While Image’s release looked pretty spectacular for the most part, the transfer was, at times, overly dark; so much so that it was occasionally difficult to discern what was happening onscreen. With Scream Factory’s release, the picture appears more balanced in terms of contrast, and, as a result, detail is more evident in the film’s darker moments. I also found the image a touch warmer, lending a bit more vibrancy to the proceedings (by contrast, Image’s offering leaned heavily toward cooler tones, bathing much of the darker sequences in a sort of “moonlight blue”). I couldn’t discern any difference in the daylight sequences on both Blu-rays, and, in each case, they look pretty outstanding, with exceptional clarity and detail.
As for audio options, we get both a 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track, as well as the film’s original “mono” track. Once again, I’m pretty sure these tracks are sourced from Image’s release. I’m not quite as picky about my audio options as most (and, as regular readers know, I tend to gravitate toward the track that’s closest to the original source whenever possible, multi-channel mixes be damned mono track), but, this time out, I opted for the 5.1 option for my first run-through of the Scream Factory release, and it sounds terrific. The terrific sound design is an enormous part of this film’s effectiveness, with the hiss of silenced gunfire and the brittle crunch of bullets penetrating glass making for some of the film’s most harrowing moments, and Scream Factory’s mix really puts you in the middle of the crossfire, here.
All new extras feature an enthusiastic commentary track by Tommy Lee Wallace (who served as the film’s art director); an interview with star, Austin Stoker (Bishop Under Siege) (HD), and an interview with actress, Nancy Loomis (The Sassy One). We also get a few goodies from Image’s release, including a commentary by John Carpenter, as well as a collection of trailers and radio spots, the film’s isolated score, and a stills gallery. As with all Scream Factory releases, we are given a slipcase, as well as a reversible insert that features both a jazzy new retro-style cover as well as the original poster art.
Assault on Precinct 13 is a classic film by one of our genre's undisputed masters that belongs in every Carpenter fan’s collection, and Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition release makes it more than a tempting double-dip for fans that already own Image’s 2009 release, with an improved image and some great new bonus features. Highly recommended!